Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture, which I co-authored with Sam Ford and Joshua Green, is scheduled to come out at the end of January 2013. The book represents the culmination of a strand of research which we started when all three of the authors were working together on the Convergence Culture Consortium at MIT and it was the extension of a white paper which I co-authored with two of the Comparative Media Studies masters students, Xiaochang Li and Ana Domb.
We will be sharing more about the book as we get closer to its release, but as part of the plan for the book, we commissioned more than 30 essays from people who have at one time or another been linked to the consortium — ranging from former graduate students who have since entered academia or the media industry and a range of faculty who have been fellows in the consortium, along with some others whose work has been central to our understanding of this topic.
Over the next few months leading up to the book’s publication date, we are going to be releasing a few of these essays each week with mechanisms which make it easy to spread to the larger community. We want to put the book’s core message, “If it doesn’t spread, it’s dead” to the test and encourage people to send links, to repost these through blogs, and otherwise, help to spark a larger conversation around issues of grassroots media circulation.
The time is certainly right for such a discussion following a year when Kony 2012 became the most widely spread and fastest spreading video in the history of YouTube and when “Binders of Women” emerged within minutes as part of the public’s response to the presidential debates. Our argument, though, is that describing these processes as “going viral” does not deal adequately with the complex social processes and cultural stakes in expanding the role of the public — as individuals and members of networks — in shaping the circulation of media content.
Today, we are releasing the first of the essays, which foreground people who participated at this year’s Futures of Entertainment conference. They are a good sample of the range of material which will be coming out through the Spreadable Media website (and I will be showcasing many more of these blog posts here, alongside the regular flow of interviews, announcements, and other materials, so stay tuned, and more than that, help us spread this content to people who might find it interesting.)
What follows are some highlights from the initial essays. To read the full entries, follow the links back to the Spreadable Media homepage.
Tecnobrega’s Productive Audiences
Ronaldo Lemos (2008) has coined the phrase “globoperipheral music” to describe the emergence of music scenes that put central focus on the peripheries. Wayne Marshall (2009) has alternatively dubbed the trend “Global Ghettotech,” a more sardonic reference to the somewhat romantic international interest in the music from the slums of former colonies. Whatever you want to call it, a few years back, this emerging and tightly networked global music circuit was buzzing particularly about the infectious beats of Tecnobrega, Brazil’s “Tacky Techno.” In Belém, the capital of the Amazon, a whole industry had emerged around this music, and apparently it was very happily reinventing the music business’s status quo. A team of Brazilian researchers led by Ronaldo Lemos and Oona Castro (2008) encountered a vibrant grassroots economic system, one where musicians had decided to bypass traditional music labels and were instead making successful partnerships with the local “pirates” who loyally feature Tecnobrega artists in the midst of their very own bootlegged bounty.
With this research in hand, I headed to Belém myself to study the audiences’ role in this booming music scene. With 1.5 million inhabitants, Belém was reported to have 140 Tecnobrega bands and 700 aparelhagems (literally, “apparatuses”), the Tecnobrega sound systems that, in their most ambitious instances, are formed by gigantic retrofuturistic machines that elevate the godlike DJs through hydraulics at the end of the shows. This infrastructure supports more than 4,000 Tecnobrega parties a month in Belém. What I found not only involved audiences but empowered participants who valued their role as industry agents (Domb 2009). When the Tecnobrega musicians decided to forgo copyright and deem all uses and circulation of their music as not only legitimate but positive, local audiences thrived….
Transnational Audiences and East Asian Television
Consider a clip from the Japanese variety show Arashi no Shukudai-kun that recently made its way onto YouTube in early 2009: a small group of Japanese pop singers are challenged to eat a “surprisingly large” hamburger named after a city in the Ibaraki prefecture and are joking about how “Super American” the situation is. They suggest that the burger inspires them to don overalls and grow “amazing” chest hair, while Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” blares in the background. The clip was then subtitled in English by two fans based in Australia and circulated based on its appeal to English-speaking audiences of the “J-pop” performers in the video as an embodied spectacle of Japanese popular culture. Various versions of the clip were distributed online through fan communities on LiveJournal, a Russian-owned social blogging platform with offices headquartered in San Francisco, and other forums, and fans shared the links through their blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Delicious, and other social media channels. In the process, the Arashi no Shukudai-kun clip was recontextualized, reformatted, resubtitled, and diverted to new (and sometimes unexpected) audiences at every step along the way. Far from exceptional, there are countless clips like this one on YouTube: in the global spreadable media environment, its crisscrossing path back and forth across multiple national, linguistic, and cultural boundaries is becoming perfectly common.
Not only is the transnational movement of media becoming increasingly pervasive; it has also become significantly more—and more visibly—multinodal. Thus, we must go beyond the use of Bruce Springsteen in the background of a Japanese variety show as part of a parody and indigenization of Western cultural materials to consider its subsequent movement as it is taken up, translated, and circulated by grassroots intermediaries, passing through divergent and overlapping circuits, often outside the purview of established media industries and markets. In short, we must look beyond sites of production and consumption to consider the practices of transmission and the routes of circulation—the means and manner by which people spread media to one another—which are increasingly shaping the flow of transnational content….
The Implicit Contract
Everyone wants something from their entertainment. Whatever this desire is, audiences’ satisfaction with a product is dependent on whether their expectations are fulfilled or exceeded. As such, viewing the relationship between the provider and the audience of an entertainment property as a contract helps explain why audiences enjoy and accept some content choices yet reject and are angered by others.
Creators and critics of fiction and film have been aware for quite some time of the need to entertain audiences without boring or distracting them. One quote that is regularly cited in online writing communities comes from science fiction author Larry Niven, who described the reader as “entitled to be entertained, instructed, amused; maybe all three. If he quits in the middle, or puts the book down feeling that his time has been wasted, you’re in violation [of the implicit contract]” (quoted, for instance, in Salway 2006).
While Niven describes the implicit contract in terms of engaging and entertaining the audience, film theorists have taken the metaphor further. Thomas Schatz (1977) and Henry Jenkins (1992) use the lens of a contract to discuss relationships between media producers and audiences. Schatz describes a film genre as a tacit contract which governs a reciprocal studio-audience relationship, while Jenkins argues that Schatz undermines the reciprocal dimension of the contract by assuming that what Hollywood delivers is what the audience wants (1992, 123)……
YouTube and Archives in Educational Environments
Students in a film studies class settle back and watch a clip of the iconic scene from the ending of Casablanca when Rick and Ilsa part at the airport. The clip that follows shows Rick sitting in his darkened bar, bitterly reminiscing about his past . . . when a balloon suddenly floats into the frame. Rick appears to knock it away as he pounds his fist on the table. A third clip begins with the animated Warner Brothers logo, followed by the eight-minute cartoon “Carrotblanca,” which, as the student presenting these clips points out, provides an ending to the film (Rick/Bugs and Ilsa/Kitty uniting rather than parting) that many viewers would prefer.
The sort of modified “mash-up” of Casablanca created by this student is hardly something new to fan communities and others who take images from one context and reshape or repackage them in an entirely new way. But the media studies classroom creates a context that encourages both students and educators to productively analyze the nature of the vast (though limited) archives of media images and the active recirculation of them for particular purposes. The classroom setting provides a laboratory that allows us to isolate and study the means by which media is spread. In the classroom, trends will be not only identified or predicted but actively shaped as students/fans (as well as the aca/fans who mentor them) grapple with the practical, ethical, and intellectual parameters of taking media into their own hands and reshaping its content…..
“Consumers” or “Multipliers”?
The term “consumer” is a fixture of the marketing, media, and cultural worlds. It is hard to imagine certain conversations without it. Lucky little term. “Consumer” is coin of the realm.
On the other hand, as Marshall Sahlins says, every theory is a bargain with reality (1976, 45). It helps us think some things. It discourages us from thinking others.
On the whole, “consumer” was a better term than the alternatives, “customer” or “buyer.” It evoked the distinction between producer and consumer, reminding the corporation that capitalism is not about the art of the possible but the art of the desirable. It doesn’t matter what the corporation does. It will sell only what the consumer wants.
Charles Coolidge Parlin made this paradigmatic shift official when, in 1912, he offered the slogan “the consumer is king.” A. G. Lafley, the CEO of Procter & Gamble from 2000 to 2010, renewed the term’s centrality when he reminded his staff, as he often did, “the consumer is boss.” (See, for instance, Markels 2006.) The term “consumer” has helped capitalism take the larger view.
On the other hand, not everyone likes the term “consumer.” Some think it’s antiecological. “Consumers” sound like ravening beasts who must destroy what they buy instead of renting it from the recycler…..
Chuck vs. Leno
In April 2009, a sandwich saved a television show. The sandwich was fairly large—12 inches, to be exact—but the feat was extraordinary nonetheless. Here’s what happened. Fans heard that the NBC comedy Chuck might be canceled at the end of the 2008–2009 television season, and they took the usual action fans take in these situations: they wrote letters to the studio and television network responsible for producing Chuck and putting it on the air. Then, they did something different—Chuck fans pled their case directly to Subway, one of the show’s prominent sponsors. On April 27, 2009, the day of Chuck’s season finale, fans went to Subway and bought foot-long sandwiches—a lot of foot-long sandwiches. They filled out comment cards, telling Subway managers that they bought the sandwiches to support Chuck. It worked. On May 19, 2009, NBC released a statement saying that Chuck had been renewed “due to an innovative advertising partnership with Subway.”
The campaign to save Chuck from cancellation, appropriately called the “Finale and Footlong” campaign, relied almost entirely on organization from the Chuck Internet community. The popular press eventually picked up on these fan efforts, but word spread primarily on Twitter and Chuck fan sites. The campaign was launched by fan Wendy Farrington (2009) through her LiveJournal page centralized on the fan website zachary-levi.com, which is named for (but not run by) the actor who plays Chuck. A description of the campaign on zachary-levi.com explains why the fans decided to buy sandwiches: “Lots of people want to help Chuck, but may not have the time or inclination to write letters, but the network will listen closer if we’re talking dollars. [. . .] The intent is to let the network and their sponsor know that we’ve received their message. This is something a Nielson [sic] box can’t do . . . this is a translation of fan loyalty into real dollars that NBC & Subway can measure” (Michelle 2009)…..
Learning to Be a Responsible Circulator
In Gilbert and Sullivan’s classic operetta The Gondoliers, the song “There Lived a King” tells the story of a royal who desired equality and thought to promote everyone to high office within his kingdom in order to achieve a single class of well-to-do, content subjects (Gilbert 1889). But the inherent nature of an entropic universe resulted in unforeseen consequences that provided for a very different reality than intended. For, after the process of elevation in rank, “Lord Chancellors were cheap as sprats, and Bishops in their shovel hats were plentiful as tabby cats—in point of fact, too many.” The last line of the song highlights the ultimate realization of such a world: “When everyone is somebody, then no one’s anybody.”
A spreadable media environment by its very nature fosters a more participatory society. Yet, in a culture where a majority of the audience has access to a ubiquitous communication environment, each person should hold a greater level of personal responsibility for establishing credibility of both content and sources.
In a “broadcast world,” credibility was easier to establish. If we trust “name” news brands such as the Washington Post, the New York Times, or National Public Radio, we tend to treat those who work for the “brand” as trustworthy by association. As the number of published voices grows exponentially, however, it may become exceedingly difficult to make an informed judgment about how trustworthy sources are when they do not have a recognized brand behind them…..
In summer 2009, public discontent around the outcome of the Iranian elections sparked a worldwide response, largely because of the visibility these protests gained through social networking sites. What happened in Tehran retrospectively can be seen as an early sign of larger unrest in the region, which gave rise to the so-called Arab Spring which started in late 2010 and reached its fullest scope in 2011. Journalists, bloggers, and other cyber-enthusiasts have celebrated the use of sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube by protesters in each of these countries and by their supporters from the West as a decisive sign that grassroots communicators might be able to route around government censors and that citizen journalists might be able to force international concerns onto the agenda of the professional news media. And this perceived value of social media platforms as potential tools for political change were further fueled in the U.S. by early 2011 protests against the Wisconsin governor, who was pushing to end collective bargaining for government employees in in the state, and by the emergence of the Occupy movement in fall 2011.
In each case, the capacity of everyday people to circulate information and opinion online—rather than going through professional journalists—was key in shaping and mobilizing public opinion. A full account of these efforts would require a book of its own. However, here, I want to explore some key lessons from the Iranian example and to point to some of the larger questions it raises about the value of social media for political activism.…
Joss Whedon, the Browncoats, and Dr. Horrible
Experimentation among independent media creators is inspiring some mainstream media producers to create alternative systems of production and distribution. Few media producers have been as adept at courting and maintaining the engagement of dedicated fans as Joss Whedon—the showrunner responsible for such cult television series as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003), Angel (1999–2004), Firefly (2002), and Dollhouse (2009–2010). Whedon has one of the most dedicated and concentrated cult audiences, yet he has often had difficulty building up a sufficient mass audience (as measured by Nielsen) to sustain a television series on broadcast or first-tier cable channels.
Whedon’s earliest series (Buffy, Angel) survived primarily because of deflated expectations about ratings numbers as new television networks were fragmenting the marketplace and as the television industry was adjusting to the erosion of younger viewers. His fan loyalty resulted in early successes in terms of DVD/video sales and rentals and, later, in terms of various legal download services.
Whedon’s more recent series have been short-lived, building desired and desiring audiences but getting canceled before the end of their first season (in the case of Firefly) or second season (in the case of Dollhouse). The Browncoats, Firefly’s most passionate fans, lobbied hard for a feature film, Serenity (2005), which would resolve some of the character and plot issues left open by Firefly’s cancellation. The Browncoats were out in force nationwide, drawing local interest in Serenity’s opening, camping out in front of theaters, developing online campaigns, and speaking to other science fiction fans who they hoped might embrace the series. By the end of their campaign, which was encouraged by the studio as “viral marketing,” the active Browncoats numbered more than 75,000 members, with more than 85 percent of them actively recruited by other fans. While the film had only modest box office revenue, its impressive DVD sales were attributed to the buzz created by the Browncoats (Affinitive 2006).
However, when the dust settled, the studio—Universal Pictures—sent cease-and-desist letters to some of the more enterprising amateur publicists, demanding retroactive licensing fees for the reproduction of series images on T-shirts and posters (11th Hour 2006). The fans regrouped, counting all of the time and labor (not to mention their own money) put into supporting the film’s release. They eventually sent Universal an “invoice” for more than $2 million as represented by their 28,000 “billable hours,” an attempt to translate their fan activities into the industry’s language (DMCA Wiki 2006). These Browncoats had understood their engagement in terms of their emotional connection with the property—measured within a nonmarket logic. However, if the studio wanted to read everything through a commercial lens, they pointed out that they had added much more value than they had taken….
Watch for more essays to be released each week through this blog and through the Spreadable Media website.